I am a bit ridiculous with emotions sometimes. For example, I cry through a lot of TV shows (especially season finales). If it’s about politics I’m probably going to cry and if it’s about fighting for the downtrodden then there’s no doubt the waterworks are coming. But last Tuesday night I just cried. Had I been back in my first year of teaching I would probably be rolling my eyes at this non-news considering I cried just about every night. However, this is my sixth year of teaching and Tuesday night I curled up in a ball and bawled.
The next morning I walked into my classroom around 6:30am and the dream that I’d had came crashing back down on me. That night I dreamt that I got to school to find the ceiling of my classroom was collapsing. The legs of desks from the classroom upstairs were sticking through crumbling plaster and only my own students’ desks were holding up chunks of ceiling. Parts of the room I could still walk through, but I could see the sag in the other ceiling tiles and knew it was only a matter of time before the rest came down on me. I ran out to grab an administrator and pull them into the room. One person after the other, I pulled in board members, school leaders, human resource managers, even the director of our charter and explained, “my ceiling is collapsing!” One by one they shrugged it off and told me, “It doesn’t look that bad,” “Some have it worse,” “It can be done,” “Students can still fit in their desks,” and “These things happen.” Enraged, I struggled to keep my calm and explain this is a major safety hazard. At any moment the ceiling could come down on me, or worse our students! “Whether they can still fit in their chairs or I can still teach is completely aside from the point,” I tried to explain while frantically pushing aside rubble and cautiously pulling seats out from under the collapsed ceiling to make room for the students who were about to arrive. The last I remember of the dream is me ushering in students and explaining that we can still learn and these things happen.
As I start into my sixth year teaching I am struggling with the question of sustainability. I have spent five years kicking and pulling myself and over 600 children through five school years. Each year I ask myself what will make this better? Yes, I can survive, but the reality is that six years in we are all still just surviving. It is not a function of how quickly I can lesson plan or how effectively I communicate with a troubled child. It is a function of where our priorities are (or rather are not) as a region, a state, and a nation surrounding education. This school year my largest class size is 38 students (this is actually low compared to other schools in the area that have rosters greater than 40 per class). We are under enrolled and are actually at risk of losing funding if we don’t up our enrollment by 50 students next year (spread over 4 grade levels). Any educator will tell you without a doubt that if you decrease their class size they can increase their impact. However, when I gawk at the fall rosters every year I invariably hear a surprisingly familiar remark, “It can be done” and “They’ll still fit.”
This year I am the grade level chair as well as a teacher coach and full time teacher. In addition to the roles and requirements of teaching a full load of Pre-Algebra, I organize and run grade level meetings, manage four other grade level roles, write a weekly newsletter, respond to requests from the office towards the grade level, coordinate the grade level’s schedules and logistics, clear grade level decisions with the Special Education department, PE department, counseling and administrators. I also make final decisions on and follow up with the team on deadlines around grading, progress reports, report cards, and data analysis. I am responsible for creating and maintaining team culture among the grade level. I also observe the teacher that I coach at least once a week, complete observation notes, have a weekly one-on-one debrief with that teacher and complete discussion notes and next steps. I am expected to assist in grade-level discipline as much as possible. I do not run a homeroom or study hall, which adds 107 minutes each day to my schedule to complete these tasks. However, I do provide coverage during that time when teachers are late to school (which occurred 3 of the 5 days this week) or need to leave early. I have been told twice that there is no stipend for this position. I am paid the same salary as if I were only taking on the teaching role.
I am exhausted. Tuesdays are mandatory 13-hour days after I have attended the weekly, 5:45 – 7:30pm leadership team meeting. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays quickly become 12 to 13 hour days as I scramble at the start and end of the day to fulfill my responsibilities as a math teacher to prepare lessons, grade student work, and reach out to parents and students. Tuesday night I did not cry because my classroom was literally crumbling, I cried because my body and my resolve to continue at this break neck pace have been collapsing for five long years. I have proven myself to the point that I have been asked to take on these roles of leadership and influence, but I am left with the same resources and compensation as I would have were I not deemed responsible enough to take on these roles.
Five years ago it was a rusted out van as I pleaded with the mother on the pavement, “be angry!” Five years later I am pleading with my colleagues, my administrators, my region, “’It can be done’ is not the point.” As I return day after day to clear the desks from the rubble, I wonder what favor I am doing by continuing to prove their point that despite understaffing and underfunding, I can still teach?